The New York Times
Editorial \ Opinion

With imports of agricultural products rising sharply and sporadic scares about their safety, Americans surely have a right to know what country their food has come from. Unfortunately, they have little chance of finding out, due to the intransigence of meat importers and grocery retailers.

Lobbyists for both groups have blocked implementation of a 2002 law that requires country-of-origin labels on fresh fruits and vegetables, red meats, seafood and peanuts. Only the seafood part of the law has been put into effect, largely because Alaskan fishermen liked some of its provisions and had a powerful champion in the Senate.

With the recent questions about Chinese seafood, those labels mean that consumers can make informed choices at the seafood counter – something they should be able to do with all of their food purchases.

As Andrew Martin reported in The Times on Monday, the Bush administration’s Agriculture Department was hostile to the labeling from the start. That comes as no surprise given that many of its top officials had worked for a trade association representing meatpackers and ranchers that opposes labeling. The Republican-controlled Congress, with key members beholden to campaign contributions from agribusiness, twice delayed the starting date for mandatory labeling, ultimately pushing it back to September 2008.

Industry lobbyists raise a flurry of unpersuasive objections. They claim it would be too costly for American meatpackers to segregate and track imported meat, and especially difficult to label ground meat which often comes from different cows. They also claim that labeling is a disguised form of protectionism, which implies that all foreign food is suspect. But these rationales are trumped by the simple argument that consumers have a right to know the origins of what they are buying. The required record-keeping should also help in tracking any dangerous products back through the supply chain to the source of contamination.

With the Democrats now in control of Congress, it is time to put an end to the excuses and delays, and finally implement the labeling requirement – preferably without waiting until late 2008. This could be done through the mammoth farm policy bill that will be up for a vote in coming months or through an agriculture appropriations bill.

If there are elements of the original law that are unnecessarily onerous and costly, these can be modified during the legislative process or during administrative rule-making to implement the law. But there should be no compromise of the basic principle that consumers have a right to know where their food comes from before popping it into their mouths.

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